The Call of Tolerance
German immigrants were among the first Europeans
to set foot in North America. They helped establish England’s
Jamestown settlement in 1608 and the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam--now
New York--in 1620. German adventurers could be found roaming the
farthest reaches of the New World for many years afterward. It
was religious tolerance, though, that first brought large numbers
of Germans to North America.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, many European
powers forced their subjects to follow an official state religion.
Therefore, when William Penn toured Germany in 1677, spreading
the word of a new kind of religious freedom in the American colonies,
he found a receptive audience. Many Germans, especially Protestants,
were persuaded to join him in his colony of Pennsylvania. Members
of smaller sects, who were often persecuted in Europe, were especially
eager to escape harassment, and German Mennonites, Quakers, and
Amish emigrated in substantial numbers. Germantown, Pennsylvania--now
part of Philadelphia--was established by 13 Mennonite families
in 1683, and thousands of their fellow freethinkers and religious
dissenters soon followed suit.
The journey to the colonies was not an easy
one, though. Many of the first German immigrants came from the
small Palatinate region in southwestern Germany. They began their
travel by riverboat on the Rhine River, and then made their way
to Holland. It took several weeks to reach an Atlantic seaport,
and another eight to 10 weeks of difficult and dangerous ocean
travel before they reached the shores of North America. To pay
for their voyage, many impoverished immigrants resorted to selling
themselves or their family members into indentured servitude--agreeing
to be legally bound to an employer in America for several years,
until their debt was paid. The conditions of indentured servitude
could be very harsh; for instance, if an indentured child died
before the contract was completed, the child's parents or siblings
might be forced to work the remaining years of that contract,
in addition to their own. Indentured servitude, unlike slavery,
was entered into voluntarily, but it is still easy to see why
German immigrants might have made a significant contribution to
the anti-slavery movement in the United States.
Drawn by the prospect of inexpensive land, German
immigrants quickly moved to settle on the fringes of the new colonies.
Soon the river valleys of New York and Ohio were dotted with new
German towns, and German settlements sprang up in Maryland, the
Carolinas, and Georgia. Their stronghold, though, was still Pennsylvania.
By 1745, more than 40,000 Germans lived in the colony, founding
towns and villages with such distinctively German names as Manheim,
Dunker, and Berlin. Many of these early communities maintain their
German character to this day, especially in the Pennsylvania Dutch
regions. (The term Pennsylvania Dutch was the result
of Anglophone mispronunciation of the German word Deutsch,
which means "German.") The Amish, who are members of an especially
reclusive religious denomination, still speak German, reject modern
conveniences, and retain the dress and way of life of the Pennsylvania
German farmers of centuries ago.